Martin Luther King was one of the greatest public figures in American history. Unlike many of the great US Presidents, he did not receive his fame by seeking public office and unlike many of the great inventors and entrepreneurs, did not accumulate wealth or status to become notable. Instead his recognition came from his leadership and struggle for racial, social, and economic justice. Yet he was not celebrated or recognized in life as he is in death. While he had moments of being uplifted as Americas most admired man, he was ridiculed and condemned for much of his public life. He was despised by southern segregationists, disregarded by mainstream moderate whites, denied by many black churchgoers, and devalued by black nationalists. Today he is romanticized by conservative whites, celebrated by mainstream society, modeled as an activist example by social justice warriors, and partially revered by many Afrocentric and Pan-African blacks. Like any great historic leader, people have both sanitized and corrupted the message of Martin Luther King. He has been used to dismiss any contemporary discussions of racial justice and to condemn protest and boycotting strategies today. Almost everyone would verbally agree that Dr. King remains a significant and influential figure both domestically and internationally, but so many are ill-informed on why his life and message matters and how his work is necessary today. Below are 7 qualities of Dr. King that matter today:
1. He had a prophetic voice: Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister who led a Christian-centered movement. Many secular progressives are quick to condemn religion and suggest that little good can come out of it. What they fail to recognize is that many of the great social justice movements were centered around faith and were led by prophetic voices in churches, mosques, and synagogues. Many conservative Christians put Martin Luther King up on a pedestal and use him to condemn any contemporary critique of the American empire. What they ignore is the very prophetic nature of Dr. King that challenged and condemned the American empire. He spoke about the godless nature of militarism, racism, and classism that inflicted America during his time and today. He had prepared a sermon on “Why America May Go to Hell” that he would have preached the Sunday after his assassination. He was an unapologetic Christian leader, but one who did not accept or worship America. Instead he spoke prophetically and passionately against the injustice caused by America. What is needed today are more Christians who follow the prophetic tradition of critiquing the ills of injustices in our world rather than being passive defenders of evil. The problem today is that there are too many social justice activists and organizers who abhor religion and too many people of faith who are adverse to standing for justice.
2. Never sold out for popularity: In 1964, Dr. King was listed as the 1963 Person of the Year by Time Magazine. This was after his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” that inspired the nation. He was later awarded a Noble Peace Prize for his work around Civil Rights in America. Yet he did not let those accolades steer him away from speaking truth and risking popularity and fame. After the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 respectively, he began shifting his focus to the issues that impacted black communities in northern cities including housing discrimination and extreme poverty. He realized that many of the northern whites who praised his work around Jim Crow segregation were hostile to his focus on northern racism. During the height of the Vietnam War, he called America the biggest purveyor of violence and spoke harshly against American militarism. This resulted in him being distanced by his civil rights allies both black and white. His alma mater, Morehouse College rejected him because they believed he was a bad role model because he went to jail too often. In 1968, the year of his death, he was an extremely unpopular figure who was seen as too radical by whites and outdated by blacks. Yet he relentlessly stood up for justice and followed his moral conscience.
3. Humanized people who hated him: Dr. King spoke unapologetically about the evils of racism, but never dehumanized individuals who supported and defended racism. His focus was on condemning systems and policies, not on settling to the personal humiliation of individual bigots. Even when people in power like President Lyndon Johnson referred to Dr. King as a “goddamn nigger preacher,” Dr. King did not retaliate. When his opponents went low, he took the high road. He referred to southern and northern white bigots as “sick white brethren” as a way to point out the evils and sins of many whites while still recognizing their humanity as brothers. This speaks to the character of Martin Luther King. While he did not excuse or accept the bigotry of whites who were benefiting from racism, he did not dehumanize their existence. Contemporaries like Professors Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson follow in this tradition by referring to their opponents who defend police brutality or other forms of systematic racism in debates as “brothers” and “sisters” while passionately critiquing their positions. It is easy to fall into the trap of dehumanizing and devaluing people who unashamedly benefit from oppression, but it is important to reject the low and ineffective nature of investing energy spewing hatred against your opponent. Instead the energy must be focused on fighting their power and the systems that produce the injustices.
4. Introverted and reluctant leader: We live in an extraverted society where the most charismatic and high energy individual is favored over the more reserved and quiet person. At young ages, shy kids are pressured to “break out of their shells” and more reserved children are warned about the dangers of being introverted. What we fail to realize is that some of the greatest leaders and thinkers in history who changed the world were described as quiet and reserved including Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa. Similarly, Dr. King was a reluctant leader in the sense that he was originally uncomfortable with wanting to lead a campaign. He originally wanted to live a quiet life teaching at a university and preaching at a church part time. When he was entrenched with the noise of the Civil Rights movement, he regularly withdrew himself to reflect and spend time alone. That time was used to process and strategize during difficult moments. Author Susan Cain argues that the reserved and quiet nature of introverts can be used as an advantage in leadership because reflection and solitude produce powerful ideas and great wisdom. Dr. King embodied so much of that.
5.True courage and boldness: Dr. King’s non-violent resistance was not popular with many blacks. Leaders like Malcolm X and later Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale objected to Dr. King’s strategy of non-retaliation. They believed that it was insulting not to fight back when the oppressor is violently attacking you. King’s strategy was seen as being passive and weak, accomplishing little. However, the practice of non-violence that Dr. King used was much bolder and courageous than the self-defense philosophy of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. It takes more courage to stand up to your oppressor and resist retaliation than it is to physically fight them back. It takes more discipline to continue standing up to expose your oppressor’s animalistic nature without retaliation because you humiliate them more. Pacifism, which Dr. King practiced, is not being passive but rather a form of active resistance without inflicting violence. That strategy is practiced today by groups like Black Lives Matter.
6. Never people made people feel comfortable in their bigotry: While Dr. King did not dehumanize whites, he did hold them accountable. Many whites today find themselves so uncomfortable and guilty about racism that they get defensive when talking about it. Nonwhites who speak about racism in white churches and other circles are asked to speak in more moderate tones as not to offend people. While the goal in discussing racial issues should never be to “offend” someone, minorities should not have to make whites comfortable in discussing an issue that impacts them on a daily basis. Just like a woman should not have to be “politically correct” in expressing to men the pain she experiences with sexism and harassment on a daily basis. Dr. King regularly condemned whites, especially white Christians who refused to acknowledge and/or do something about the conditions of blacks in America. In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, he specifically targeted moderate white Christians including clergy who remained silent in the midst of racial chaos. He spoke of God’s judgement on people who weren’t necessarily vocal bigots, but did nothing about the mistreatment of black Americans. What he said made many whites uncomfortable and made him more of an enemy, but he did not care. His goal was not to soften up to whites, but to urge his fellow Christian brothers and sisters to take action.
7. Imperfect and morally flawed person: Dr. King is so romanticized today that people get defensive when they hear reports of his infidelity and other moral flaws. He is held on so high of a pedestal that people are blinded to the reality that him, like all others are imperfect beings and yet God has and will use flawed people to carry out his work. Furthermore, being morally flawed does not diminish the impact of one’s work. It just goes to show that people have baggage and that is a part of life. Professor Michael Eric Dyson suggests that Dr. Kings lifestyle in many ways is no different from the vulgar and misogynistic lyrics in rap music that society loves to condemn. In fact, many people use Dr. King to condemn to immoral lifestyles of “young and urban” Americans today while failing to realize that Dr. King was guilty of many of the very behaviors. He may have not written a song calling a woman a “bitch” or a “hoe,” but he used women regularly for sex and devalued the influence and leadership women, which is much worse than calling a woman a degrading name. He was flawed, yet he still had an impact. Let’s stop romanticizing him.
While many people’s praises of Dr. King are based on misconceptions, the reality is that he is one of the most impactful American leaders in history. He is recognized by a vast diversity of people from white Christian conservatives to black Pan-African nationalists. He was a powerful orator who challenged the moral compass of this nation and this world. As we acknowledge him on his holiday, we must understand his complex nature. We must recognize that if he were alive today, he would be as controversial now as he was in his era. The 7 qualities that represent him are important qualities in understanding his leadership and impact. Furthermore, many of the qualities are necessary for aspiring advocates and leaders for racial and social justice today.